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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

'James A. Michener's Texas:' Equal Parts Docu and Drama Mini-series

The most amusing thing about the recent DVD release of the 1994 ABC mini-series "James A. Michener's Texas," which expertly chronicled the battle of Texas settlers for independence from Mexico, was that the disc was manufactured in our south of the border neighbor. No, resolving that 19th century conflict did not directly lead to NAFTA.

It is worth mentioning as well that this mini-series did not support the theory that adding an auteur's name to a movie's or television program's title was camouflage designed to make a bad production seem good. Every aspect of this mini-series, including the wonderful cinematography and perfect narration by Charlton Heston, was terrific.

The auteur aspect of Michener was that he was a well-known and highly respected author of novels that depicted the historical development of different areas from the perspectives of characters who experienced those events. The numerous subjects of these very lengthy works extended beyond Texas to include places such as Alaska and the South Pacific.

This well-produced DVD was also timely both because it was released during the May sweeps period and because it came a few months after PBS' documentary series "The Pioneers of Television" ran an episode on epic mini-series such as "Texas. " These series were sweeps staples before cable television diluted the audience numbers that justified the big budgets for these lavish productions.

Trademarks of these events, which typically ran between two and five nights, were big names and large-scale sets that reflected the epic nature of their often decades-long stories.

"Texas" was reminiscent of the earlier and lengthier mini-series "North and South," which depicted the events leading up to the American Civil War from the perspectives of the families of a son of a plantation owner and a son of a Pennsylvania factory owner who became best friends while rooming together at the West Point military academy. Patrick Swayze was that series' big name.

A primary similarity between "Texas" and "North" was that characters who began as friends ended up on opposite sides of a conflict that genuinely changed America forever. There was also the inevitable love triangle.

Casting "Dallas" original series and 2.0 star Patrick Duffy as Texian, a.k.a. Texican, settler and Mexican government liaison turned rebel leader, rather than test pilot turned Bionic-powered government agent, Steve Austin was interesting in a good way. Not only had Duffy starred in a series set in Texas 150 years after the events of "Texas,'" but "Dallas" was originally conceived as a mini-series that principally (of course, pun intended) around the Romeo and Juliet romance between Duffy's Bobby Ewing and Victoria Principal's Pam Barnes.

"Dallas" was transformed into a long-running weekly series when the evil schemes of Bobby's older brother J.R. captivated audiences.

No one would confuse Steve Austin with Bobby Ewing, but Duffy played both characters in similar manners. Austin initially peacefully enforced the regulations that the Mexican government imposed on the young men and women who had gone west to settle on then Mexico-owned land. A critical event that occurred roughly one hour into the mini-series convinced Austin to actively join the fight for independence from Mexico.

Austin also initially had the same form of sibling rivalry with the unrelated Sam Houston, played by classic actor Stacy Keach, that Bobby and J.R. never really resolved in the original series despite periods of detente. Houston's objectives in coming to Texas from Virginia included inciting the rebellion that lead to the famous battle at the Alamo.One truly could say "Houston we have a problem" regarding his personal conflict and the larger one.

Keach did a particularly good job with an entertaining PG, as opposed to even PG-13, homoerotic scene while still in Virginia. Houston and legendary frontiersman and future Texas resident Jim Bowie were quietly sitting by themselves when Houston asked Bowie if "it" was as big as people said that "it" was.

Bowie replied that "it" was pretty big. He then reached into the waistband of his pants when Houston asked to see "it." Bowie reached further into his britches when Houston asked to see "all of it." Anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of old west history knows that "it" was the knife that was named after Mr. Bowie.

Another great homoerotic moment involved a prolonged shot of mini-series "Lonesome Dove" and "Return to Lonesome Dove" star Rick "Don't call me Ricky" Schroder's bare back 40 as he finished bathing in a river. Schroder played Otto, the adult son of a settler, in "Texas."

Schroder's character was interesting on many levels that extended beyond his well-formed hindquarters. He served as a tough but loving unrelated older brother to Yancy, who was the less rugged son of strong-willed frontier widow Maddie Quimper. Otto also had a compellingly odd father fixation (man crush?) on Mexican native Benito.

Seeing  a very vulnerable Otto's heart break when Benito, who Benjamin Bratt portrayed, literally rode off to war may have broken the heart of more sensitive audience members.

The aforementioned love triangle involved Austin competing with Benito for the heart of Maddie. Although Benito and Austin had been friends, Benito added to the conflict between them when he joined the campaign by Mexican general Santa Anna to drive most settlers off the land.

Maddie remarking to Benito that the settlers wanted to fight for their land and Benito responding with well-controlled anger that the land used to be his was an awesome scene that depicted the series' central conflict. Benito added the further relevant observations that Mexicans respected land and that Americans only wanted to possess and exploit it.

Rather than continuing on to create a review that rivals a Michener novel in length, this analysis will end with sharing that the extras include a very good "making of" feature and an always entertaining trailer and equally worthwhile extended promo.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Texas," or "Dallas," is encouraged to email me.